The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall 2013)

Terror and Art: A Meditation

Geoffrey Hartman

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.3 (Fall 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2013

(Volume 15 | Issue 3)

We have entered an age in which terror is an increasingly familiar experience. By terror I do not mean primarily what may result from the usual mayhem of criminal acts, but something driven by larger and often ideological ambitions. We now confront a deliberate “terrorism,” state- or group- sponsored, targeted or purposefully random, involving single atrocities or massacres. Warfare, whether conventional or asymmetric, is not its only breeding ground. Whereas war, in the past, was not necessarily total but intended to resolve a conflict that could not be settled by other means (see Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens), terror suggests a sempiternal enemy (not unlike the devil in theology) who must be eradicated, not just deterred, to assure the community’s survival or presumed destined greatness.

In its absolute form, terror becomes less the means to an end than a foundational, self-justifying “divine violence.” It seems to mirror —and is even flashed back at—a God whose world in its worldliness compels at times brutal solutions. These are anticipated by the votaries of the French Revolution Maximilien de Robespierre and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, who insist, as is well-known, on the necessity of a “virtuous” use of terror.

The basis of government in revolutionary times, Robespierre declared, “is both virtue and terror: virtue without which terror is murderous, terror without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing else than swift, severe, indomitable justice; it flows, then, from virtue.”

Yet terror is bound to strike fear into more than the faction specifically under attack. It induces a trauma of the body politic; its sequelae threaten to occlude the future of all who learn of it. All the more so today, where its contagion works not only locally but also from a distance—brought to us by the new media.

* * *

Linking two radical beginnings, Rome at its founding and England after the regicide of 1649, the poet Andrew Marvell recalls in his “Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” that Rome is said to have foreseen its “happy fate” in a bleeding head, excavated, according to legend, by architects when they were building the new Capitol. This auspicious omen seemed to justify a “capital” event. Implied is that an important change in government, tantamount to a new foundation, cannot take place without a severe wounding of the previous body politic.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida too broods on such mystifications, but in the context of a “credit” accorded to “faith” and irreducible to rational explanation. He describes that credit or faith-based credence as resulting from a “messianity without messianism”—an expectation not fostered by a particular religion but “a general structure of experience,” a universal desire for a more visible, present justice. Indeed, Derrida’s formulation has an affinity with what is so often portrayed in Franz Kafka’s fiction: the quest for a definitive moment of enlightenment or justification. Yet when that moment comes, it always does so too late, as in “Before the Law” and “In the Penal Colony.”

Such failed expectations, moreover, intensify the terror that seeks to impose or enforce them in the name of justice. This can be seen from the many times in which a fierce version of Islamic Shariah law is immediately installed without respect for other versions of the same religion, or a general principle of peaceful conversion. How thoughtful, in contrast, Karl Barth’s demands are, despite his being the sternest philosopher of modern Protestantism. He writes in his commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

We must recover that clarity of sight by which there is discovered in the COSMOS the invisibility of God; we must recover that sacred terror in the presence of the creature, not by the mere createdness of the things which attract us, but as well of the things which frighten us, until we see in their relatedness the mirror of our own.

* * *

Jean-Lambert Tallien, propagandist for the French Revolution’s “September Massacres” and organizer of the Reign of Terror associated with a phase of the Revolution that sacrificed tens of thousands to “Saint Guillotine,” describes terror’s effect as “a habitually generalized trembling.” Terror, or, more exactly, The Terror, does not affect only those targeted; it sensitizes the entire social fabric. Even those who only hear about it, feel it like a chill that cannot be shaken off: You shudder, both body and mind shudder.

The future too is subject to this trembling, since the act establishing a New Order brooks no delay. Time must not become merely history once more—the era of a God who failed. In a fanatical portion of Islam this hope is scandalously repackaged to motivate the suicide bomber with the promise of an immediate and richly rewarded life after his sacrificial death.

* * *

William Wordsworth, in Paris, shortly after the French Revolution’s first internecine butchery, the massacres of September 1792, describes how he experienced the Terror as a haunting “spot of time.” A passage of unusual eloquence in The Prelude reveals how Terror propagates itself even when there are no media of diffusion. A poetic mind especially, which describes so sensitively in The Prelude how certain early experiences of Nature by the youngster, or more precisely of the youngster alone with Nature, keep resonating in later years (I shall soon quote another instance of that), here once more set his imagination working:

With unextinguished taper I kept watch,
Reading at intervals; the fear gone by
Pressed on me almost like a fear to come.
I thought of those September massacres,
Divided from me by one little month,
Saw them and touched; the rest was conjured up
From tragic fictions or true history,
Remembrances and dim admonishments.
The horse is taught his manage, and no star
Of wildest course but treads back his own steps;
For the spent hurricane the air provides
As fierce a successor; the tide retreats
But to return out of its hiding-place
In the great deep; all things have second birth;
The earthquake is not satisfied at once;
And in this way I wrought upon myself
Until I seemed to hear a voice that cried
To the whole city, “Sleep no more.”

Terror here is like a cosmic repetition-compulsion; its rhythmic fatality reaches beyond the severe original point of occurrence. Though the poet still sees a Law of Nature at work even in nature’s wildest manifestations, today’s era of man-made disasters makes us suspect an unstoppable momentum. The argument, moreover, introduced by seventeenth-century thinkers who acknowledged, yet hoped to limit, the divine right of kings—the argument that Nature itself (i.e., “natural law”) would auto-correct any royal abuse of power (they pointed for confirmation to the English regicide), as well as thinkers in the Enlightenment, who held that history displays more political stability and moral resurgence as it progresses in time—all these optimistic beliefs are made more questionable by the advent of Terror.

Without faith in progress, then, or a stabilizing natural law, can the pervasive anxiety, the chill or tremor in the wake of man-made terror, be endured?

* * *

As the shock takes hold and keeps resonating, as clips, for instance, of the destruction of the Twin Towers are obsessively played over and again, and recreations of the horror of genocide, films of the quality of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah or Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List are produced, the enigma of how it could have happened and the fear of a recurrence do not lessen. The very sensationalism of the extreme event, reconstructed via the spectacular medium of motion pictures or other visual representations, exerts a hypnotic spell, as if something in us wanted to render such images intimate and neutralize (“integrate” is too optimistic a word) their impact.

The thought of art’s mimetic skill enters at this point. Could art-mediated representations defuse the fatalism or sense of impotence produced by extreme events, at least events ascribed to human agency, and declared to be “facts on the ground”? Think it over, we say about less critical situations; turn it over in your mind. To regain control we adapt or create a narrative, change a story line.

* * *

Political terrorism’s effect, however, even if one considers it as differing only in degree from other fearful experiences, may not allow us, I have suggested, enough time—enough future—to be “worked through.” For it has also a long-distance psychic effect. So Wordsworth talks of a fear heightened by “remembrances,” “tragic fictions,” “dim admonishments.” Even when only heard about, and not directly experienced, the extreme enters by way of the imagination (the poet slips from “I thought of” to “saw…and touched”). We too seek to escape insomnia and nightmare by acts of reading and writing that extricate both present and future from the past.

I wish to suggest that art’s very grounding in myth can help fortify us (at least somewhat) against the effects of terror. Our hope in the future might not succumb to a sense of dread, or loss of faith, if we would look more closely at how poetry deals with “spectre shapes of terror,” rescuing for us, even creating, amalgams of terror and beauty that mitigate deadly fear and obsessive anxiety.

So Wordsworth describes in The Prelude, how a corpse, fished from Esthwaite Lake near his birthplace, did not terrify him as a child, because it seemed familiar, swathed in a fairy-tale aura:

At length, the dead man, ’mid that beauteous scene
Of trees and hills and water, bolt upright
Rose, with his ghastly face, a spectre shape
Of terror; yet no soul-debasing fear,
Young as I was, a child not nine years old,
Possessed me, for my inner eye had seen
Such sights before, among the shining streams
Of faery land, the forest of romance.
Their spirit hallowed the sad spectacle

Are we not, in effect, charmed by a traditional fantasy element, and even given courage by the very power of the presenting imagination? In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the “fear to come,” that troubles Nature’s life as well as the human conscience, is keynoted by a catchy nursery rhyme, the witches’ “Fair is foul, and foul is fair/ Hover through the fog and filthy air.” Fairy tales forebode.

* * *

Museum exhibits, memorializing atrocity by showcasing gruesome relics, reveal a further problem, not resolved by the aesthetic kind of immunization just described. Such exhibits tend to produce a helpless astonishment or abhorrence. Immanuel Kant already tried to value this curious mixed emotion arising for him in a very different context—namely, as a result of the mathematical sublime (when the observer is confronted by an immeasurable magnitude). To transpose this into the present: Who could “add up” (mentally, emotionally, imaginatively) masses of hair shorn from murdered Holocaust victims, or neat rows of skulls in a Cambodian museum? (One skull at a time, please, an incongruous inner voice tells me, as I recall memento mori portraits showing Philosopher or Divine meditating on a famous skull.) Is the whole world becoming a Golgotha?

Despite all our difficult looking, what remains of such reality shows is a macabre riddle. If there is, nevertheless, the possibility of an imaginative or cognitive modification of the haunting sight—its resetting in a tolerable frame-narrative—then we glimpse a defusion that may lead back to the founding and valuing of art as an artful, therapeutic, socially necessary institution.

Hope revives that we could benefit from freely undertaken re-enactments, within a concentrated and consecrated time-limited space that would provide just enough aesthetic distance. A legomenon, as James Frazer, Jane Harrison, Gilbert Murray, and other anthropologists of the Cambridge school name such re-enactments, gives voice to, but also draws a containing circle around, a primal scene. They describe this in religious rather than psychoanalytic terms as a dromenon, a ritual mystery scene (perhaps a pantomimic trauma-spectacle) believed by these scholars to have been the forerunner of festive Greek tragedies. A parody of such a dromenon somehow finds its way into Hamlet’s “play-within a play,” its “Mouse-trap,” as Hamlet calls it, which not only points to the king as murderer and usurper but as a poisoner of the ear, and so, one might say, of language itself. The royal usurper’s florid manner of speech is set off and undermined by the exaggerated, bumpkin-like style introduced into literary English by Edmund Spenser’s eclogues with their Colin Clout pastoral speech.

These Shakespearean links are passing strange, of course. They issue from a mind whose creative uptake of things verbal and visual is incomparably sensitive. In this mind, self- and stage-consciousness compete. Shakespeare is fully aware in the skull scene of Hamlet’s last act—where all the world’s a grave—that art must expand our sensitivity by employing enigmatic sights or situations, since many visuals and verbals, due to acculturation, lose their immediate capacity to puzzle or shock.

Thus art often defamiliarizes by inventing moments of (quasi-unresolvable) strangeness. In certain moods everything human becomes alien to us. Literature, certainly, offers us episodes that portray startling changes of character, disastrous reversals of fortune, inexplicable coincidences, motiveless killings, mysterious corpses, gothic gore, and chilling sounds. These “grabbers” often launch the action and an inquest.

So from Oedipus Rex to the modern detective novel, the basic plot-line is akin to that of the surnaturel expliqué (the “supernatural explained”) of the gothic story, which became popular in the latter part of the eighteenth century. An intrusive, ghostly/ghastly event, after complications and misapprehensions, resolves into its natural causes and (barely) satisfies the criterion of “probability” demanded by Aristotle’s Poetics; while the protagonist’s settled mental state (“purpose”), suddenly unsettled, goes, via a crisis phase of radical doubt, turmoil, and suffering (“passion”), to a deepened and wiser state (“perception”).

I borrow this formulation of tragic drama’s basic structure from Francis Fergusson’s The Idea of a Theater, but the pattern of shock and eventual resolution also recalls Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fantastic. There must be, in any case, a moment of wonder or woe (mostly both) that takes us out of ourselves.

* * *

A further plot device might stress the hero’s initial passivity, delay, or failure to engage. Not only Hamlet, but the story of Parsifal comes to mind, where there is a lapse in time before inquest turns into quest. Medieval stories about Parsifal have many variants, but usually he encounters an extraordinary spectacle-tableau, most famously that of the wounded, eternally bleeding Fisher King. Parsifal must then decide between asking and not asking its meaning. Mythographer Jessie Weston tells us that “the hero [Parsifal] fails to enquire the meaning of what he sees in the Castle of Wonders, and is told in consequence: ‘Hadst thou done so, the King would have been restored to health, and his dominions [the Waste Land] to peace.’”

Parsifal’s failure is eventually redeemed. No guarantee exists, however, that the questions we ask will be redemptive—questions after standing before the sheer dead presence, the physicality of skull and hair, synecdoches of horror no longer economized, but simply, endlessly, heaped up.

What can give closure to such brooding, or transmute it into actionable knowledge? I recall Primo Levi’s anecdote of how his “Why?” was met by the curt and brutal reply of the death camp guard: “Here there is no Why.” This is even more crass than the mocking Arbeit Macht Frei (“Labor makes you free”), the slogan over the entrance to Levi’s camp, the Auschwitz-Inferno he describes, and which brings together two of the greatest lies of Nazi propaganda: that, racially, the Jews were parasites, who everywhere undermine instead of support nation and culture, and that, after their reeducation, provided by Auschwitz and other concentration camps, they would be set free—whereas, in reality, “free” meant having been worked to death.

* * *

My own brooding, I admit, shares a visual desire that has become a public malady. Today the relation of knowledge to the means of representation has changed. There is an overload of information; for example, a plethora of detail about the “Final Solution,” thanks to the techniques of modern historiography, the testimonial courage of the survivors, and the punctilious, over-confident record-keeping of the perpetrators themselves. Powerful audiovisual media stand by to convert this information, also of more recent genocides, into simulacra of the original event. Inevitably, therefore, questions arise about the limits of representation: questions not just about whether extreme events can be represented, but whether truth is served by a “realism” that, wishing to stay as true to fact as possible, becomes reluctant to moderate the horror of man-made catastrophes.

The escalation of mimetic devices, then, has its negative side. When episodes from the repression and violence of our time, and our efforts to cope in their wake, are made into action movies whose competitive context is other action movies, do we not blur the distinction between history, docudrama, and fiction, without wishing to do so? Realism, in any case, does not always reinforce reality. Movie realism, especially, is closer to the surreal: to a self-imposed trial by nightmare and illusion in the way it speeds up incidents, heaps up coincidences, and, by zooming, booming, and montage, destabilizes perspective.

Some devices, of course, such as condensing the passage of time or montaging and fusing locations, are inevitable. They express the economy of a besieged, precariously filtering mind, and hit the emotions hard. The aesthetic distance achieved by an openly reflective textual approach, as in Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, is less coercive and didactically more effective. Holocaust video testimonies, too, viewed as a new oral history genre, are on the nonfictional side, however grim, of what is being remembered.

Critical commentary is not helpless in this situation. It indicates the limits of media that give the appearance of having no limit—yet, in fact, limit themselves by what theology characterized as the path of excess (the via eminentia). It is futile, for example, to advocate an anti-iconic “Second Commandment” prohibition that forbids the imaging of a particular subject matter because of its sacred or obscene character. Just consider today the cultic proliferation of horror movies or freak shows of various kinds, including over-the-top comic caricatures—the equivalents of satyr plays. They have become our TV diet (except for the news and the cooking shows). We afflict ourselves with an obscene rictus, hoping in vain for a desensitization, or (at best) purgative laughter. The result hastens the twilight of all taboos.

A related issue is how exposure to terror, even at TV or movie remove, might be counteracted. I have already suggested that ways must be found to avoid the foreclosure of hope caused by actual or televised shocks, by what French sociologist Luc Boltanski has called our souffrance à distance—our suffering at a distance. So it is again useful to recall the role of the arts, of forms and rules of decorum. While these are often transgressed, our very consciousness of transgressing recalls them, and they are employed throughout history to strengthen reader or beholder.

Eighteenth-century aesthetics (founded initially as the study of “subjective” value-judgments based on feelings arising from sense-perception) formulates theories of the Sublime, preeminently those of Edmund Burke and Kant. Such theories, going beyond the analysis of what is felt to be pleasurable or beautiful, stress the psychological impact of cosmic nature’s “terrific” phenomena (the Lisbon earthquake devastation, the Alps, the sudden burying and calcification of Pompeii and Herculaneum). But they go on to describe a dialectic not found in religion, one in which the phase of awe and abjection is followed by a self-conscious rebound that reaffirms the competitive strength of our rational and spiritual powers as they strive to equal what is great, vast, mysterious, and frightening in the external world.

Art’s engagement with realities, then, is not realized by constantly trying to shock, or transmit an actual moment of terror. However adverse or overwhelming the circumstances depicted may be, we look for a response named by Longinus magnanimity: greatness of mind. Through art or other means, we must also deal increasingly with the fallout from human sources of terror and trauma that dim our perception of a peaceful nonhuman world, of Nature in its idyllic aspect, and contribute to a special type of despair, described by poet John Keats as “the feel of not to feel it.”

It is also Keats whose The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream yields what is surely one of the most intriguing dream-image sequences of terror in literature, although it refuses to give up romance furnishings and conventions. So the testing of the poet begins conventionally with “white, fragrant curtains” from behind which the goddess Moneta, one of an older and mysteriously disempowered race of gods, admonishes the poet: “If thou can’st not ascend/These steps, die on that marble where thou art.” In Keats’s Dream, these steps lead back to Hyperion’s temple and the deities displaced by Apollo, the new Sun God. Because the poet, despite his belief in progress—even poetry’s progress—does not write off the older gods, but devotes to them his (also unfinished) Hyperion: A Fragment, there is a second, more complete unveiling, again accompanied by the poet’s “terror.” For as Moneta finally parts her veils, the poet sees “a wan face/Not pin’d by human sorrows, but bright blanch’d/By an immortal sickness which kills not;/It works a constant change which happy death/Can put no end to; deathward progressing/To no death was that visage….”

Keats, a strong believer in the Enlightenment, is embedding the schema of what the eighteenth century called a “progress poem” into a Dream Vision narrative. For some readers, Keats’s use of marble/marvel and other romance elements may not resolve sufficiently into a humanistic quest poem; yet they do express directly both the “giant agony”—i.e., the agony of the giants or older gods, as they lose their power without knowing why to a mysterious progress—and that of the modern poets, who must find a way of expressing the “giant agony” of ordinary men and women—like Keats himself, who eventually lost brother, mother, and himself to the “wasting disease” of tuberculosis.

* * *

Do we, then, still have the possibility to change the insomnia—the “Sleep no more!” heard in Macbeth, and haunting Wordsworth in Paris two centuries later—to change it into a wakefulness sustained by art’s education of sense and thought? Or does a suggestion of this kind overestimate the possibility of being guided by the arts, as the anxiety about terrorism grows, and even fosters a secret attraction? In Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film, That Obscure Object of Desire, fear and desire mingle as the explosions from an insurgency come near and nearer, foreshadowing an end to bourgeois complacency.

Keats’s two large epic fragments mean to be no less than revolutionary: It comes as a surprise, but they explicitly condemn the only other original poetic current of his time, that of Wordsworthian subjectivity. So when Moneta makes her famous distinction between dreamer and poet, and suggests Keats is merely of the “dreamer tribe” (“The dreamer and the poet are distinct,/Diverse, sheer opposite, antipodes./The one pours out a balm upon the world,/The other vexes it”), Keats explodes, calling upon Apollo to bring the pestilence to “all mock Lyrists, large self worshipers,/And careless Hectorers in proud bad verse.” Aiming that phrase clearly at Wordsworth, we understand how seriously Keats takes his Apollonian theme of wishing to renew the powers once ascribed to epic poetry. Despite his extraordinary attempt, already mentioned, to create a progress poem, he cannot deny Moneta her lament that the era of the “large utterance of the early Gods” has passed. Indeed, despite all these complexities, Keats will not give up “uttering” the gods: His romance revivalism maintains the “Sleep no more,”is revival of or answers Thomas Gray’s “Awake Aeolean Lyre!”—which already called upon eighteenth-century English poetry to waken from its drowsiness. So Moneta, in The Fall of Hyperion still laments the passing of Hyperion’s power:

I cannot cry, Wherefore thus sleepest thou:
For heaven is parted from thee, and the earth
Knows thee not….

* * *

Passing to our own time, the status of literature as judged by a novelist like Philip Roth is not encouraging. In Roth’s Exit Ghost (2007), the ghost is not only the ill and aging writer Nathan Zuckerman, brought back from Roth’s earlier fiction for a final gamble testing his powers of candor, rage, and seduction. Foreseen is the end, the ghosting and exit, of an entire literary ethos. Roth’s cultural pessimism, his sense of the subversion of an ethos by “ideological simplification and biographical reductionism” (to which one could add hyperbolic visual media), makes the question of what guidance literature can offer difficult to answer. We would have to come to terms with testamentary words attributed by Roth’s Amy Bellette (a.k.a. Anne Frank, who has mysteriously survived the Holocaust), to the self-sequestered literary idol E.I. Lonoff, a character migrating, like Bellette herself, from The Ghost Writer of 1979, in which Zuckerman first appeared: “Reading/writing people, we are finished, we are ghosts witnessing the end of a literary era….” The 30 years between the first Zuckerman novel, and presumably the last, mark for Roth an epoch.

Yet when I recall that terrorism has not prevented the witness of so many great writers of the present age, how strongly and justly they have made us understand its impact, I remain convinced that even if the ethos surrounding the appreciation of literature has deteriorated (as Roth suggests), it has not touched the core of literature itself.

There are, on the one hand, scrupulously difficult authors like Maurice Blanchot. In such extended essays as The Writing of the Disaster and The Instant of My Death he seeks a secular, counter-theological mode of meditative prose and creates a distinctive literary space in the very shadow of terror’s tremendum. On the other hand, we can also turn to a more traditional kind of literary writing. Even if, as Roth fears, a parasitic, gossipy, commercially driven celebrity journalism (to be distinguished from courageous front-line reporting) has weakened literary appreciation, we cannot but close-read Primo Levi, recognizing clause by clause the writerly as well as moral integrity of his description of the aftermath of torture, a practice all too common in the epoch of Terror: “It extends through time; and the Furies, in whose existence we are forced to believe, not only rack the tormentor… but perpetuate the tormentor’s work by denying peace to the tormented.”


It may strike the reader as naive to argue that art can restrain or influence the ideology of terror in any way. But what I bring into consideration holds that art creates a mentality of its own, in the absence of which terror as a political temptation moves more freely and damages the shaky humanism we have left. I can cite as a present danger Alain Badiou, a French “post-Communist” philosopher, who also identifies an epoch, although a much more alarming one. He singles out most of the twentieth century as a distinctive slice of history, a “siècle” primarily marked by state terror, which he interprets (favorably) as the product of a “Passion for the Real” that could not attain the Real. It became increasingly violent, therefore, and staged, from Lenin and Stalin, to Mao Zedong, from Hitler’s persecutions to the Cambodian genocide, deadly theatrical trials and other features of a persistently unreal Realpolitik. The quest for what is real, and being part of it, even has Badiou bring back “Terror” formally as a necessary political goad, “if History is to be tamed and life to realize its destiny.”

Living in the aftermath, however, even those who were once seduced no longer have such a worshipful attitude toward a “Passion for the Real” that was to have ultimately created, through an annihilative “Final Solution,” a purified New-Man Nation. Today, 65 years after World War II, we are still learning about a slaughter of the Innocents, with Father Patrick Desbois uncovering hundreds of previously unknown mass graves of Jews in the Ukraine, into which, the local population recalls, infants, not worth a bullet, were thrown alive.

Geoffrey Hartman is the Sterling Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Scholar of English and Comparative Literature at Yale University. He was also a founder of Yale's Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. A book of his poems, The Eighth Day, will be published in the fall.

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